The coral reefs in southern Florida are the only coral reefs found in the lower 48 United States, the only barrier coral reef in North America[1], and the third largest barrier coral reef in the world. These fragile ecosystems support a large range of marine life. The effects of pollution, tourism, boat groundings, and other human activities put stress on these ecosystems, causing severe long-term damage before the Deepwater Horizon oil spill ever happened.

Crushed Coral

Crushed Coral

Several factors play a role in the success of a thriving coral reef ecosystem. Growth is a slow process for coral with an estimated rate of “one to sixteen feet every 1,000 years.”[2] Most coral found in Florida requires shallow, warm, clear water, good water circulation, and a very specific, narrow temperature range. These conditions can are often disrupted by human activities. When human interaction causes destruction, recovery is a very long process for the affected coral reef and the marine life that depends upon it.

The most common damage from human activity is from recreational activities like boat anchoring or grounding that physically damages the coral. Irresponsible divers collecting the coral or associated marine life, as well as marine debris (little), also pose periodic threats. But the most constant damage is caused by run-off from South Florida farms, groves, golf courses, and lawns that contaminates the water and reduces the amount of sunlight that reaches the reefs. Most coral reefs develop in the photic zone of the ocean, that is, where sunlight can reach. Sunlight is vital to coral that live symbiotically with tiny algae (called zooxanthellae) that live in coral tissue producing food from sunlight and also giving the coral their vibrant colors. "Bleached" coral is the result of lost zoozanthellae, either through death of the algal cells or when the algae actually leave the coral as a result of poor conditions. Bleached corals can recover, but often do not. [Other species of coral that do not share a symbiotic relationship with algae — called azooxanthellate corals — are also found in the region; there are 94 verified species of azooxanthellate corals in the Gulf.[3]]

On November 16, 1990, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Protection Act was passed by the U.S. Congress to “protect the resources of the [2,800 square nautical mile] area” that includes the Florida Keys, areas in the Atlantic Ocean, Florida Bay, and the Gulf of Mexico. This act enables the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and other organizations to protect the area and educate the public about its fragile ecosystem. Recreational activities such as removing portions of the reef have been outlawed by this act. When damage to the reef occurs, this act also outlines the penalties for those who are responsible. There are several scientists who work for NOAA to serve and protect the area. Dr. Billy Causey, Southeast Regional Director for the National Marine Sanctuary Program, is one of those staff members who develops policies to protect the Sanctuary. In an interview with Dr. Causey regarding the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and protection of the Sanctuary, he stated, “we have been ready since April 20,” (read the interview with Dr. Causey).

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is about 450 miles away from the Sanctuary. However, several environmental factors — such as the Gulf Loop Current and hurricanes — could cause the spill to enter the Sanctuary and impact its coral reefs. If the oil spill reaches the coral reefs in Florida in any form, whether it be tar balls or the fine dispersed part carrying heavy metals, the additional stress will only amplify the existing issues that threaten the only barrier reef in North America.

Resources for Pre-oil Stresses on Coral Reefs in Florida

[1] Coral Reef Evaluation & Monitoring

[2] Florida's Coral Reefs

[3] “Gulf of Mexico: Origin, Waters, and Biota, Volume 1 — Biodiversity, edited by D. L. Felder and D. K. Camp, Texas A&M Press, 2009, pg 335